Being an Earth-centred religion, the religious observances of Wicca revolve around the changing seasons. This cycle is called the Wheel of the Year. It begins with Yule at the Winter Solstice, and ends with Samhain on October 31st. (Note that some Wiccan traditions believe that the year begins on Samhain.) The eight holidays on the Wheel are called Sabbats, perhaps coming from the Hebrew word Shabath meaning “a day set aside for rest and worship”. Sabbats occur about once every six or seven weeks.
Sabbat rituals are based on more then just the changing seasons. Each Sabbat revolves around a particular theme, which is appropriate to the season. For example, Beltane (May 1st) focuses on fertility and growth, and Samhain (October 31st) deals with the end of cycles and death. Many Sabbat celebrations include ritual dramas illustrating the theme of the season, told as part of the story of the Lord and Lady.
Some Wiccans also celebrate every full moon or new moon. These rites are often mistakenly called Esbats. This term actually refers to any meeting of a coven or ritual working, held on a full moon or not.
There are two types of Sabbats. The first type are the Quarter Points or “low” festivals. They are tied into solar events, and occur on the equinoxes and solstices. These Sabbats are:
- Yule – Winter Solstice
- approx. December 21st
- Sun at 1° Capricorn
- Ostara/Eostre – Spring Equinox
- approx. March 21st.
- Sun at 1° Aries
- Midsummer/Litha – Summer Solstice
- approx. June 21st
- Sun at 1° Cancer
- Mabon – Fall Equinox
- approx. September 21st
- Sun at 1° Libra
The second type of Sabbats are the Cross-Quarter Points or “high” festivals. These holidays fall more or less directly between the Quarter Points, and are concerned with agricultural observances. These Sabbats are:
- February 2nd
- Sun at 15° Aquarius
- May 1st
- Sun at 15° Taurus
- August 1st or 2nd
- Sun at 15° Leo
- October 31st
- approx. Sun at 15° Scorpio
Note that Wiccans in the Southern Hemisphere generally switch the dates of the Sabbats, celebrating Yule while Northern Hemisphere Wiccans are celebrating Summer Solstice.
There are also many Wiccans who use the Celtic names for the Sabbats. I am of two minds about this. First, the use of these Celtic names (like Samhain and Yule) is so widespread that I wouldn’t suggest completely dropping them. However, if one chooses to use these names, it is important to be aware that the modern Wiccan rituals do not recreate or even necessarily represent the Celtic festivals they are named for. Also, I think it is confusing to use the Celtic festival names when one works with deities from other pantheons. There is a movement to use the following, more general, names for the Sabbats:
- Winter Solstice – approx. December 21st
- February Eve – February 1st
- Spring Equinox – approx. March 21st
- May Eve – May 1st
- Summer Solstice – approx. June 21st
- August Eve – August 1st
- Autumn Equinox – approx. September 21st
- November Eve – October 31st
Ultimately, I think it is up to individual practitioners to decide on the names they will use for Sabbats. I would suggest some thought be paid to how the Sabbats are celebrated and to some sort of consistency in naming.